A Family Affair
by Eva Grayzel
When I returned home from the hospital, my children, seven-year-old Jeremy and five-year-old Elena, could barely look at me. I understood. I could hardly look at myself, even though I kept my sutures covered with scarves and bandages. My children shied away from my touch. How could I blame them? I couldn’t bring myself to touch my own wounds.
After my oral cancer treatment, I could barely eat, but I took pleasure in serving my family nourishing food, feeling in some way that it nourished me as well. Elena inspected everything I served carefully. “Mommy, did you take a taste with this fork?” she would ask.
“No, honey, I touched it to my lip to see if it was too hot for you.”
“I don’t want it,” she’d reply, even though we had explained several times that she couldn’t “catch” cancer from me.
Often, Elena became angry with me for no reason – she would hit me out of the blue, stick her tongue out, kick my shins. One day, I sat her on my lap and with my radiated, raw vocal chords said, “Elena, tell me why you’re angry. What did I do?”
She ran away saying, “Bad mommy.”
The emotional trauma to my children lasted long after I recovered.
My husband started putting Elena to bed because she didn’t want me to do it anymore. One night I heard her call out, “I want my mommy.” Ecstatic, I hurried to her room and said in a hoarse whisper, “It’s me, Mom.”
“I want my Mommy!” she cried.
I thought she didn’t hear me. I leaned closer, rubbed her back as I always had, and repeated, “Honey, it’s me. It’s Mom.”
“But I want my Mommy.”
I got it. She wanted her old mommy back. We all did.
I suppose it was good that Elena expressed her feelings. Jeremy was the opposite. He would play by himself with his astronaut action figures and space machines on the living room floor while I rested on the sofa. When I suggested he spend time with friends, he would resist unless they could play at our house. He never wanted to be too far from me. He never asked any questions, even when I reminded him that I would get better soon. I know he was scared, because every time I had a coughing attack, he ran out of the room in fear.
The emotional trauma to my children lasted long after I recovered. Three years after my recovery, Jeremy was with my mother looking for birthday cards. He found a get-well card and said, “Grandma, let’s buy this for Mom.” She had to remind him that I wasn’t sick anymore.
My daughter didn’t kiss me for two years. She was intuitive. She knew she could lose me, so she didn’t want to commit to one more day of loving me. We learned how to kiss again with a game I made up called “The Smallest Kiss in the World.” It was a competition to see which of my children could give me the smallest kiss. Elena took any opportunity to compete with her brother. She angled my face just right and kissed me. I didn’t even feel her kiss, yet I told her it was too big, just so I could get another. This game put us on the road to recovery.
My children were greatly affected by watching me struggle with the side effects of oral cancer treatment. Their fear of losing me was deep, real, and bottled. The pain my disease caused my children hurt me more than my disease itself. This was my illness – keep my children out of it!
But it doesn’t work that way. Cancer is a family affair.
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Stage IV oral cancer survivor Eva Grayzel is a motivational speaker, master storyteller, and author. A champion for early detection, Eva founded SixStepScreening.org, six steps to a thorough oral cancer screening. On the website, you can watch the music video for her “Oral Cancer Save-A-Life Rap.” She is the author of two books for children who care about someone with cancer: Mr. C Plays Hide & Seek and Mr. C the Globetrotter, available in hard copy at Talk4Hope.com and in animated format in the iTunes store. Learn more about Eva at EvaGrayzel.com.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2013.